How to Choose an Honor Society
Associate Director of the University Honors Program
It is common for good students to get invited to join one or more honor societies. These honor societies ask students to pay money to become members, and students often wonder whether it is worthwhile to spend the money and/or which invites to accept. The right answer can vary from person to person. What follows are some thoughts intended to help you make your own decision.
A Few Rough Categories
Not an accepted classification system, just a quick grouping to highlight differences.
Very selective academically but expect little in the way of formal participation. Membership signals a very strong transcript. Examples: Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi.
Stronger focus on campus life. They aspire to hold regular meetings and plan activities. The GPA threshold is typically a little lower than for “high distinction” honor societies, but groups that confer notable academic recognition will still generally limit membership to the top fifth or better by GPA. Examples: Phi Eta Sigma, National Society of Collegiate Scholars and Golden Key.
Recognize academic achievement in particular fields of study. Some are more “high distinction” and some are more “active participation” in nature. Activities tend toward a more professional focus. They exist for many departments and academic colleges. They are too diverse to inventory here.
Often lumped with (and even called) honor societies. However, they differ in several important aspects. First, there is typically no initiation fee. Second, the size of the group is restricted, no matter how many qualified applicants. Third, outgoing members typically choose incoming members. Fourth, members are expected (versus encouraged) to contribute to regular service and leadership efforts undertaken by the group. Examples: Quest, Silver Key, Chimes, Mortar Board and Blue Key.
Unfortunately, shady organizations do exist. Groups that obscure their criteria for invitation are suspect. Groups not registered as campus organizations are also suspect. How do they know what kind of student you are? Go to www.achsnatl.org/standards_alert.asp for a good summary on the subject.
Weighing the Benefits
So how do you decide? The basic guideline is to consider whether you want or need what the honor society offers. Here are some types of benefits to consider:
If you would value the chance to enshrine your good academic record on your resume, then it probably makes sense to join an honor society respected for its selectivity. However, if you can show your academic merit in other ways, you may want to consider whether other advantages are also conferred.
Participate with the Group
If you have been trying to get more involved and make some new friends, and if you are interested in the kind of activities the group plans, then the honor society might be a great opportunity. The “field specific” groups might also have professional enrichment aspects to consider. However, if you are very involved on campus already, consider whether you will actually have time to reap this benefit.
Many honor societies run scholarship competitions for members. This is a great benefit. However, since these scholarships are very competitive, consider whether you will still feel good about joining if you do not win. Also remember that “active participation” groups tend to weigh how active you have been in their scholarship criteria.
Honor societies sometimes support varied member benefits at the national level. These include member discounts with certain companies, online services such as a resume bank, subscription to an official magazine, etc. Some also hold national conferences or offer travel grants to conferences in specific fields. Take a look. See if any of this appeals to you. Some students simply like the perks that the honor society offers.
Still cannot decide? It might be a good time to research what honor societies exist on the K-State campus. Check their national websites (the campus chapter may also have a website). Consider which ones you are most interested in joining and which are likely to invite you. That may help you decide whether the current invitation makes strategic sense to accept.
Talking to people might also help. Your faculty and advisors may have perspectives on “field specific” groups. You might ask peers who joined whether they felt it was worthwhile. And some students will also seek insight from faculty sponsors or current officers within an honor society.
Bottom line . . . ask yourself whether the added line on your resume will signify a meaningful distinction and/or a meaningful expenditure of time and effort. Choose carefully with your own goals and situation in mind. If you do that, you will probably not regret your decision, regardless of whether you choose to accept or decline.
Disclaimer: In response to many student questions regarding honor societies, this handout was prepared in Summer 2008 by Jim Hohenbary. The discussion above is solely his perspective. And in the spirit of full disclosure, Jim has been involved with Phi Kappa Phi on the K-State campus since Fall 2000, when he began working with students as they compete for nationally competitive scholarships.